Colorado’s Clay Keller has been roping and rodeoing all his life and if there is one thing fellow competitors recognize immediately, it’s his original personality. He’s had some good luck in the roping pen as of late, but beyond that, he’s quite the character, a friend to many and chock-full of good advice.
If you’ve been around roping long, chances are you’ve at least heard of Clay Keller. Ask him and he’ll tell you he’s just doing what comes natural. But for most of us, having the ability to engage people with a unique and fun-loving sense of humor is something we all might be a little jealous of.
Around his region, and even roping circles far and wide, Clay is well-known for a number of things. He’s the man behind Cory Ente, a popular article that brings voice to a Corriente steer. He’s often heard singing the lyrics to his hit single “Hockin’ and Heelin’”—the team roper’s parody to Chuck Berry’s “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” On rare occasion you might even hear him serenading the crowd with “New Tony Lamas” (in the appropriate setting of course). And then there’s his characteristic sentiment, ‘Ole Podna’ that you’ll often hear him express.
Keller, a Wyoming native, currently hangs his hat just outside Fort Collins, Colo. Like many of us do, or wish we did, he makes several trips south every winter to enjoy the Arizona sunsets and even more so, the throng of team roping that happens every which way you look. He recently pocketed $8,760 winning the #11 with partner and friend, Steve Dismuke at the Dynamite New Year’s Qualifier in Queen Creek, Ariz., which gives The World Series Roper a valid reason to catch up with the comical guy who seems to know just about everyone—but we quickly found there’s a more reflective side too.
WSR:Did you develop your sense of humor early on?
CK: Ever since I can remember I just loved to make people laugh. I discovered I could imitate my parent’s friends, the way they walked or the way they talked, and all the adults would just laugh. I come by it naturally too. My parents both have a huge sense of humor we were all always laughing.
WSR: With four brothers, two older, two younger, did that affect your developing personality?
CK: Definitely. Mom always said, “You should have been a lawyer. You have the ability to make peace in the family, you can mediate either side.”
WSR:Being in this industry all your life you’re going to know a lot of people, but you seem to know more than the average Joe?
CK: (Laughing) Yes, I suppose. My friends will always joke around, “We can’t go two steps without Clay having to stop and shake somebody’s hand somewhere.” In this industry and my job with cattle people (he’s a sales rep in the cattle division for Elanco Animal Health, a division of Eli Lily) you make a lot of friends. That’s one of the coolest parts of roping. You get to hang out with your friends evey weekend and meet new ones all the time.
WSR: Why team roping?
CK: I grew up horseback and had a rope in my hand since I could remember. Never thought of not doing it. I rode saddle broncs too. It’s such a part of who I am, team roping and rodeo in general. I was lucky to grow up in a family that valued that. Dad (John Keller) just turned 80 and two weeks later won at a US roping. All of my best friends, all of them are because of roping and rodeo.
WSR:What has been your most significant win team roping?
CK: I just won the #10 Invitational at the (2013) US Finals with Jody York. We split $47,500.
WSR:Can you just call on your sense of humor anytime? Does it translate into your roping at all?
CK: Really I feed off people’s interactions. People have said to me: ‘You need to do some stand up,’ but it’s a little bit different. It’s a reaction to the situation, where people can look around and see what’s happening. People have asked me to do certain things. They’ll say, ‘do this or do that,’ but it’s not always the right place or right time. As far as roping, it used to not. I would fight my head, but I’m able to let things go and that’s helped my roping—being able to laugh at myself. Here’s one I think guys can relate to. A while back I was out exercising horses, riding one, ponying one, and I had a guy coming to help me hang a barn door. He showed up right about dusk, so I ride in from the pasture, tie the horses to the trailer and we get the door up. He left and I kept doing a few things around the barn. By that time it’s just dark! So I go inside, get myself some dinner. Go to bed. I go out to feed the next morning and my horses, they’re gone! Obviously, I walk around the trailer and there they are, saddled and all. The broncy one, he’s got the saddle down around his belly. I mean, I felt terrible, but you just gotta laugh at yourself.
WSR:What’s the worst thing that’s happened during a real run?
CK: Hmmm, two or three years ago Shane (O’Hotto) and I were sitting real good on two in Reno (at the PDI) all we had to do was catch to get our spot in the short go and rope at $200,000. Shane stuck it on him; I mean really stuck it, and my rope? Well it just flew out of my hand. Like, ‘WHOOO’—straight up. It was like God reached down and said, “Not today Clay.”
WSR: A lot of us have heard your team roping parody Hockin’ and Heelin’, where did it come from?
CK: Oh, we were at an amateur rodeo, Guernsey (Wyo.) if I remember right. I have no idea how it started. There’s that old song that goes, “reelin’ and rockin’, rolling ‘til the break of dawn.” I just started saying, “hockin’ and heelin’, ropin’ ‘til the break of dawn.” It just went on from there. I made up a verse or two, Tom Hirsig made up some too. A lot of windshield time, maybe a beer or two involved.
WSR:Not to point out the obvious, but what’s your story behind losing the thumb?
CK: That’s a funny one really. We were in Colombia, Mo. I roped and immediately knew it was gone. The flagger asks if I’m all right and I just say, ‘Nope, thumb’s gone.’ My good buddy Kurt Richardson, he decides he’s going to drive me to the hospital and we have absolutely no idea where it is. He’s driving like a crazy person, running red lights. Every now and then we see one of those blue hospital signs and I’d say turn here, turn there. I told Kurt, “Man, right now I’ve only got my thumb cut off. I’m not dead. Slow down!” Finally we flag a guy at a stoplight. I show him my hand and my glove is covered in blood, and my thumb is just in there moving around. So the guy, he kind of panics, says ‘follow me’ and leads us right to the emergency room door. We still laugh about it.
WSR:Do you have a philosophy you live by outside the arena?
CK: I guess I do. The more you help people, the more you’ll get in return. Not necessarily that day, but it will come back around. I probably live by that more now, where I didn’t before, when I was younger.
WSR:If you could tell other ropers one thing that’s helped you be successful, what would it be?
CK: I think it’s about a good attitude and keeping perspective. It’s not life or death. My brother got in a roping wreck about five years ago. He was in a coma, we weren’t really sure if he would make it. He did and he’s back to roping now, but his life sure changed. That’s also why it’s important to have fun. Take risks, man. Live life. (With one and half thumbs up he laughs.) “You win thumb, you lose thumb.”